The inaugural Japanese Automotive Invitational was one of the coolest events of the 2018 Monterey Car Week, and I’m not just saying that because it was put on by the Motor Trend Group in partnership with Infiniti (OK, maybe just a little). Seriously though, JAI was a fun and eye-opening collection of some of the most interesting and unique Japanese cars of the past 50 years, an exhibit that added some much needed Asian spice to the weekend’s festivities. Located at the top of Peter Hay Hill and integrated with the Infiniti exhibition, the Japanese Automotive Invitational was just a short walk from the 18th fairway of Pebble Beach Golf Links where the 2018 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is held and was free to all. Here are a few of my favorites from the 44 cars that made it to the debut show. I’m already looking forward to seeing what’s on the menu for next year.
1967 Toyota Sports 800
When your mind wanders to the dawn of Toyota’s sports cars, as it does, the 2000GT almost always comes to mind first. But this groovy little machine also has a place in the Toyota pantheon as the first of its sports car models. It’s an awkwardly proportioned car with its long hood and stubby greeenhouse, but one with some interesting lines and an overall stance that screams sports coupe. It was powered by a 790cc two-cylinder, horizontally opposed air-cooled engine, and one of its claims to fame is that it came with a removable targa-style top that beat the Porsche 911 Targa to market. Toyota also made a smattering of left hand drive cars during the Sports 800 run to sell to U.S. soldiers on Okinawa.
1976 Honda Civic “Lady” Concept
While this concept didn’t make production, it probably should have given it’s a funky two-door wagon with doorstop styling. We especially dig that crazy wide rear window. Speaking of styling, it was penned by Sergio Coggiola, an Italian who was also responsible for the Saab Sonett III. The Lady itself was based on a first-gen Civic, and it featured design elements that would appear on the third generation of Honda’s bread and butter model.
1990 Nissan Pao
If you didn’t know anything at all about the Nissan Pao before looking at it, you’d swear it was something straight out of the 1950s. With elements lifted from cars like the Fiat 500, Austin Mini, and Citroën 2CV, it’s easy to understand why. Mid-century modern look, to be sure, but the Pao was far more contemporary given that it was produced from 1989-91 as part of Nissan’s “Pike” series of innovative microcars. The Pao came with an available folding cloth top like this model, a split rear tailgate, external hinged doors, and flap-up windows, but with a modern chassis and suspension and a 1.0-liter engine from Nissan’s small car lineup at the time, mated to either a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic. It proved wildly popular, with more than 50,000 sold in all.
1973 Mitsubishi Colt Galant GTO MR
Mitsubishi has made some pretty fun enthusiast-flavored machines over the years and this killer looking coupe was one of the top Japanese sports cars of its era. It was set up to compete in the JCCA Grand Prix circuit but plans were scrapped due to the OPEC oil embargo. Later it was moderately successful as a rally car. The MR (a ka “Motorsports Rally”) version of the Colt Galant GTO featured a twin-carbureted 1.6-liter four in the neighborhood of 120 horsepower and was sold only in Japan. It was also available with a five-speed manual, which was uncommon at the time for a Japanese car.
1975 Isuzu 117 Coupe
Remember Joe Isuzu? Google him. And while you’re at it Google this car, which is a delightful looking fastback coupe with an Italian flair thanks to styling by the legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro. The 117, which also came in sedan and wagon variants, was a breakthrough model for Isuzu that had a long run from 1968 to 1981. It was one of the first Japanese cars to utilize a dual overhead cam engine and electronic fuel injection, with an engine size that moved from 1.6 to 2.2-liters during its lifespan. It also came with 4 – and 5-speed manuals and a 3-speed automatic and was available with a diesel engine, making it what is considered to be the first diesel-powered sports car. Though it’s hard to believe given how Isuzu evolved for the American market, the 117 was also something of a luxury leaning car, with several higher end interior touches.